IT WAS JUST a solitary piece of foliage, but it came with a big responsibility. “All the flavors of Southeast Asia are on this betel leaf,” said chef Andrew Zimmerman as he placed the small plate in front of me. He was right. That one-bite amuse-bouche, with its bounty of finely chopped exotic ingredients, followed through on its promise—as does the rest of the menu at Proxi, the new West Loop restaurant from Zimmerman and partner Emmanuel Nony.
A few years in the making, Proxi’s inspiration grew out of a desire for what the duo didn’t have at Sepia, their upscale modern American restaurant a few doors away. That means at Proxi, you’ll find an open kitchen with a huge custom-built wood-burning grill (word is it took hours to move it from the street to the inside of the restaurant) and a chef’s counter in front of it. That’s where, on most nights, you’ll find Zimmerman, manning the flames and chatting with customers lucky enough to nab one of the eight cushy bar stools. “It’s nice to be able to talk to people directly and get their immediate responses,” he says. Judging from my visits, those responses are generally along the lines of “Wow.”
At first glance, the menu’s 27 savory items, which get larger and heartier as you scroll down, offer few clues of the deliciousness that awaits. The dish descriptions portray a mix of ingredients and flavors from all over the world, including Japan, India, Thailand, Mexico and Spain, with some incorporating ingredients outside their respective borders. It’s dishes that, on paper, shouldn’t work when paired together, but do. “It’s the kind of food I’ve been making over the years at home on my days off,” says Zimmerman. (Note to self: Get an invite to Zimmerman’s house stat.)